Youth-adult partnerships in 4-H clubs

Creating meaningful roles for youth in decision-making.

Michigan 4-H Youth Development  emphasizes the importance of incorporating youth voice in decision-making.  4-H clubs provide a safe setting for youth to practice decision-making supported by caring adults. When youth are empowered to make decisions for themselves, youth develop skills in leadership, planning, teamwork, facilitation, conflict resolution, problem solving and much more. 

It may be difficult for adults to resist the temptation to decide what’s best for youth and do all of the planning for them.  When adults act in this way, they are treating youth as a recipient says Michigan State University Extension.  Sometimes, adults consult youth to get their ideas, and then handle the rest of the planning and preparation.  When adults act in this way, they are treating youth as resources.  In order for youth to be fully engaged with adults in partnership, youth and adults must share an equal voice in the planning and an equal share of the responsibilities in implementing programs.  The following provides suggestions for ways youth can assume leadership and decision-making roles in their 4-H clubs, in partnership with caring adults.

Officers: When youth are elected to serve in officer roles, they take ownership for a set of responsibilities related to the management of the 4-H club.  Refer to this article by MSU Extension to gain insight on the primary types of officer roles and their responsibilities. While adults are an important source of support for youth in these roles, it is important to allow youth to practice all of the skills associated with being an officer of a 4-H club and take ownership of their responsibilities.

Fundraising: 4-H clubs often coordinate fundraisers to build their treasury and support their programs.  Empowering youth to decide what type of fundraising activity they are interested in and tracking the funds raised and expenses are as important as the fundraiser itself.  In this setting, youth learn important financial management skills and are typically more dedicated to making sure the fundraiser is successful. 

Community Service: Many 4-H clubs participate in community service activities.  Rather than adults determining the activity for youth, engage youth in a discussion about what they see as important community needs and how they can contribute to them.  Allow youth to make decisions about what activities they spend their time on, and allow youth to notify and remind club members about the activities.  See this Michigan 4-H Youth Development resource on planning service learning projects with youth for more ideas.   

Educational Workshops: “Learning” should comprise at least half of the time that 4-H clubs are convened.  This can be done in many different ways that engage youth in decision-making.  First, solicit youth ideas regarding things they are interested in learning about.  When brainstorming, it’s important to give youth enough time to develop their own ideas; resist the temptation to fill silent space when youth are thinking with the ideas of adults. Once youth decide what they are interested in learning about, engage youth in planning the presentations.  This can be done by asking older youth to serve as presenters, or asking youth to contact club leaders or community resource people to present to the club.  Youth develop important skills by making phone calls to people they may not otherwise know and asking them to assist with a club activity. 

Although at times empowering youth to make decisions can extend the time it takes to accomplish goals, the benefits to youth are remarkable and far out-weigh the added time involved.  Youth that make decisions for their clubs are much more engaged in club activities, feel personally responsible for the success of the program, and develop important life skills in the process. The MSU Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement Work Group can provide training in maximizing youth-adult partnerships in 4-H and community organizations.

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